Ottermania: Visiting Monterey and the Monterey Bay Aquarium

“I think I saw an otter!” I said, as we crossed over a bridge near Elkhorn Slough, on our way into Monterey. My significant other nodded indulgently. “No, seriously, I’m not making this up,” I insisted. But how would I know? It’s not like I run into otters every day or had ever seen one in the wild. But this is exactly why we were headed to Monterey.

I don’t know how I started watching sea otter videos on YouTube. It was probably just one of those links that someone put on Facebook or Twitter–”Hey, this is cute, check it out.” It definitely wasn’t from my childhood, because I never held an opinion about otters prior to the advent of readily available video on the internet. At this point, though, I’ve watched otters fostered in people’s houses and baby otters being blow dried and otters being rescued and otters doing tricks. I’ve watched people whose only job seems to be snuggling otters, otters in bathtubs, otters floating around in the ocean.

At this point, if someone I know sends me an otter video link, chances are high that I’ve already seen it. It’s relaxing. It’s cute. It’s enjoyable. It is something I am not ever going to see in the course of my day to day life, commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Let’s face it: there are days where I consider myself lucky to encounter a patch of grass. (The W Hotel on Union Square used to have planters outside with small circles of green grass, and I’d detour out of my way just so I could run my hand across it.) I know, I am a tough city lady who eats gravel for breakfast and fights the dragons of the New York City subway daily. But I love these little, fuzzy otters, dammit, and they are the best stress relief ever invented.

Many of those videos originated from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, who has a world-renown sea otter program since 1984. And that’s probably when I discovered that they had a live webcam pointed at their sea otter enclosure. At this point, all I have to do is type “Monterey..” into any web browser on any computer or device that I own and it will take me to the live otter web cam page. I’ve watched them swim and play with ice and dive in and out of the round pool I started calling the ‘hot tub’. I’ve watched the daily otter enrichment activities so often that I can recite the docent’s talk almost by heart. Some people watch cats, some people watch stupid human tricks…I watch sea otters.

So when we were planning a southwestern roadtrip for this spring, and I realized we would be within shouting distance of Monterey, there was no way we weren’t going to visit the otters. I know that Monterey is a beautiful and historical city and luckily, I already visited when I was a teenager and dutifully did my John Steinbeck tourism then. Because we arrived around 11am, dumped our stuff at the hotel next to the aquarium, and went directly there, with enormous excitement and anticipation. I was going to see the otters!

The only day we could fit the aquarium in on this trip was a Saturday. I knew this likely meant we would be sharing it with thousands of people and a gazillion families and small children. So there were a couple of lines of defense: First, I bought tickets in advance on the internet, anticipating a lengthy Saturday morning line (and was 100% correct there). Second, we ate lunch at the sit-down restaurant and not in the self-service cafeteria. Third, I booked a private tour of the aquarium, which navigated us behind-the-scenes and got us around most of the enormous crowds. (It also provided the opportunity to ask as many questions as I wanted about the otters or anything else.)

But first, before I visited the exhibitions or watched a documentary or went to the gift shop to peruse otter merchandise (and there is A LOT of this in Monterey), I had to go say hello to the otters.

The otter enclosure is two floors, enclosed, with the opening on the roof deck which is only open to the trainers and staff. The view from the webcam is from above, but I quickly oriented myself to the fake rocks and the hot tub and the otters–now swimming around on the other side of the glass from me. Abby, Gidget, Rosa, and Kit (all named after Steinbeck characters!) were there, floating on their backs, diving down into the tank, hauling themselves out on the rocks, bumping into each other. I could honestly have stayed at the otter tank all day, and it’s a good thing there isn’t anything to sit on anywhere nearby or I wouldn’t have left. (I am sure this is deliberate, because I am positive I am not the only one who feels this way.)

My first impression was that they were so much bigger than I expected. This is probably because many of the videos online are of the tiny adorably fuzzy baby or younger otters. But grown otters are about 55 pounds, so we’re talking dog-sized. And these things move fast, for a 55 lb mammal with a fur coat on their backs. But they did not disappoint in person.

Then, we headed for the restaurant. I know, there are dozens of great restaurants in Monterey, but heading to one of them would have involved leaving the aquarium (and the otters) and the subsequent loss of time in the aquarium (and the otters). So we opted to eat inside the aquarium, and that ended up being a great decision. We eschewed the self-service cafeteria for the civilized sit-down section, which had less screaming children. The food and service were great, and I didn’t feel like I was paying a lot of money for crappy food just to be able to not have to leave the building.

But the real wonder is that the restaurant overlooks Monterey Bay–the aquarium is housed in an old cannery building–and when you are seated, the hostess notes the binoculars that are helpfully placed on your table. Before you think this is a cute gimmick, I will point out that we saw at least a dozen otters swimming and diving outside while we ate, and the helpful reference card attached to the binoculars noted sea birds and other animals–like whales!–that you could see while dining.

The next stop was the theater for their showing of “Luna, An Otter’s Story.” Before you snicker, the audience was split 60/40 between adults and children. But this isn’t the kind of video presentation you’d expect; instead, it’s presented with the lights on by a live narrator (an aquarium volunteer, all of whom were smart and friendly), who asked questions to engage the younger audience members and provided enough data points to engage those of us over the age of 12. I had seen much of the footage in the documentary “Otter 501,” which shows up on PBS from time to time, and is also available on YouTube. It gives the non-marine biologist a solid grounding on the history of sea otter conservation and the Aquarium’s role in it. (I could write a whole post just about the documentary, so just go watch it if you care about otters at all.)

After the screening, we quickly returned to the otter tank in order to get a good spot for the 1:30 otter enrichment. The best spot is one on the very edge, because the aquarium staffer who narrates the event will ask tall people to allow short people to get in front of them, and if you’re on the edge, you’ll have a good spot but not have to move. It will be mobbed, and there are screens, and honestly, I think the webcam gives you a better view of the feedings. It was a lot more fun to let the crowds die down and then watch the otters get back to being themselves, for lack of a better term.

You know how they say that watching fish is relaxing? Watching otters swim is relaxing times infinity.

Once the otter session was over, we visited the penguins (who mostly seemed annoyed at the enormous crowds gathered around their enclosure) and viewed some other exhibits, before returning to the entrance to meet up with the tour guide for our private tour. Now, private tours are not cheap, but you get your own tour guide and you can bring up to six people. I’ll be totally honest: I booked this because I wanted to be able to get as much otter information as I could, so when called to reserve the tour, I asked for an “otter focus,” understanding from the various documentaries that that didn’t mean I was going to get to play with the otters, as much as I might like to.

I can’t begin to stress enough how this tour was worth every penny. We saw every highlight of the aquarium and then some, both behind the scenes and in front of the tanks. Unintentionally, this was the best possible strategy on a busy summer Saturday, as the tour routed us around the crowds and away from the masses. Joe, our tour guide, was able to answer every single question we had about otters, the aquarium, otter conservation, and was an absolutely endless font of information about marine life and the aquarium and its exhibits for two and a half hours. We saw the kelp forest repeatedly, because of its importance to the aquarium and the otters especially, the deep sea exhibit, the special exhibits, the jellyfish, the octopus, the hands-on exhibits. There was literally no corner of the aquarium that we didn’t visit. I didn’t think I cared about jellyfish, but Joe coaxed me into touching one gently. There was the bucket we walked by that read “TENTACLES”. And, there was a brief, quiet tiptoe past the otter rehabilitation tanks.

By the time we were done, all I wanted to do was get a drink and sit down for a few minutes…before returning to the otter tank one more time. It was the end of the day so it was easy to walk between levels and between windows and get maximum views of the otters as they swam and floated and played and hauled out on the ‘rocks’. I would have stayed there until they kicked me out, except that I needed to get to the gift shop before it closed. There are otter shirts and earrings and pens and mugs and posters and pretty much everything you could possibly need or want from a marine mammal merchandise perspective. (And, if the aquarium doesn’t have anything to your liking, there’s a tourist t-shirt shop just down the street on Cannery Row that has even more items, including a great shirt that said “Hairy Otter” with an otter wearing glasses, as well as one reading “Plays Well With Otters” which, unfortunately, was not available in adult sizes.)

When we finally left the aquarium and returned to our room at the Intercontinental (which is, quite literally, right next door), there was a stuffed otter waiting for us on our pillow, available for purchase, with proceeds going to the aquarium.

The next morning, we woke up ridiculously early on a cold and foggy Sunday morning to head north to Elkhorn Slough in order to go kayaking. There are kayaking opportunities right in Monterey Bay, but Elkhorn Slough is a protected coastal wetland, providing more chances to actually see otters, and also not quite as intimidating a body of water as the bay to non-kayakers. I had kayaked before many times, but a very long time ago, and the SO had zero kayaking experience, and so we joined a tour led by Monterey Bay Kayaks.

There were just four other people in our group, and we were in the water by 9am, dragging our kayaks into the slough under the watchful eye of a giant group of seals. Two minutes later we were floating adjacent to a raft of male otters–our guide called it “a big otter bachelor party,” and we watched them swim and play and one floated right by, cracking open their breakfast on a rock on their chest. We saw three rafts of otters (a group of otters is actually called a raft), two baby otters, and countless seals and sea lions, all right there, in front of us, hanging out and doing their thing. Again, to a city girl, this was like paddling around in a National Geographic special, and when sea water splashed on my face, I didn’t immediately panic or worry about where I could get a tetanus shot, the way I would if East River water came within an inch of my skin.

Given that the slough is an estuarine reserve, there are rules in order to protect the animals that live there. You can’t come too close, you can’t ‘harass’ them, you can’t make them nervous, you can’t encourage them to climb on your boat or feed them. The guide was awesome and an endless font of knowledge on the marine life and ecosystem, and did a solid job in making sure we were close enough to see things but not so close as to make the animals feel threatened. We paddled for three miles and it was worth every second of it, even if the last pass through two boat docks absolutely covered in seals and sea lions barking loudly was a little unnerving, but still all kinds of awesome. I’ll take my chances against the seals vs. a subway rat any day, and despite fog and chilly water and kayaking skill deficiency, I was happier in the kayak than I would have been stuck in a tour group on a larger boat, which is your other option to tour Elkhorn Slough.

Monterey isn’t that far away from points of interest in California, and it’s not like I won’t ever be back, but I’m still glad I planned and went for Maximum Otter in this one trip. The aquarium is amazing and is, as they say, worth a detour if you’re heading for the Pacific Coast Highway or are hanging out in Northern California, even if you’re not an otter groupie like me.